Passing of a Seventies legend: Prince of the King's Road

He dazzled on his debut at 17, took the breath away with his sublime goals, and always lived his life as he played the game: on his own terms
Click to follow

First George Best, now Peter Osgood. These are hard months in the legacy of some of football's wildest days.

Just a few months after the death of Best, the passing of another natural-born hellraiser reminds us of the hard and precarious line between the receipt of sublime gifts and their excessive celebration.

If Best was the supreme anarchist of his football age, Osgood was a boisterously enthusiastic disciple. But if both inevitably provoked regrets, they were also united much more happily in their ability to make the blood course and the spirits fly in anyone who saw them in their prime.

There was another compensation yesterday. Osgood had, in his football after-life of post-dinner entertainment, had plenty of opportunity to feel the warmth of gratitude that still attached itself to the memory of his often spectacular career.

Best had already astonished the football world when the boy from Windsor walked into Stamford Bridge with the stride of someone lifted up by the certainty of his ability to play football of the highest quality. He was different to Best in stature and background and nature, but there was an enduring line.

When you thought of Osgood some of the best of football came into play, and not the least the possibility of something separate in terms of vision and ability and outstanding execution.

"Osgood is good" they cried as an article of faith at Chelsea and there was muted agreement around the rest of the country, not least in Burnley when the long (6ft 3in) thoroughbred teenager ran through their team to score. Burnley would soon be touted as the potential team of the Seventies by their respected manager Jimmy Adamson, but was the happy-go-lucky "Ossie" a player of the ages? Had the assessment been made on talent alone you would have said so. But great careers are made of more than that, and if Osgood, who died at 59 yesterday, was born with all the attributes of a player who might have dominated the football world - pace, wonderful control and a natural instinct for goal - there is also the imperative of discipline, and a little luck.

Osgood's luck plummeted quickly and by his own admission his discipline was never up to much. Eight months after his breathtaking goal against Burnley at Turf Moor - a contemporary report states matter-of-factly: "Osgood took the ball from his own half and beat four Burnley defenders before stroking the ball past goalkeeper Adam Blacklaw" - he broke his leg in a collision with Blackpool's Emlyn Hughes. That was in October 1968. He was four months short of his 20th birthday and he was never quite the same again.

Though he eventually recovered, he was out for the rest of that season and during his rehabilitation he put on two stones. He never took all of it off, and it is there that maybe we find the dividing line between a player of power and natural elegance and a giant of the game.

Osgood's flaw was that he rode the fast lane of football when it was still quite thinly populated; he and Chelsea team-mates like Charlie Cooke, Alan Hudson, Ian Hutchinson, who also died prematurely, and Tommy Baldwin were as dazzled by the lights of the King's Road quite as much as the glory that lay so invitingly at their feet.

Once, in despair, the Chelsea manager, Dave Sexton, invited Osgood into his office, said he would lock the door and throw away the key, and that they would settle their differences in the most basic way. Osgood demurred, but the reformation Sexton craved in his virtuoso player never quite happened.

It is a remarkable testament to his talent that amid the chaos and the boozing so many grace notes of excellence are still so easily picked out.

He scored a vital goal, from a beautiful ball by the mazy dribbler Cooke, when Chelsea shocked the powerful Leeds United in the 1970 FA Cup replay, and his attacking guile and goal were key elements in the European Cup-winners' Cup win against Real Madrid a year later. Osgood, ironically, played some of his best football when he moved to Southampton in 1973, and was part of the team which beat Manchester United in the 1976 FA Cup final.

Yesterday there was a wave of tribute to a man who was at the heart of the excitement and some of the more elusive horizons in the English football of the Sixties and the Seventies.

Terry Venables, the former England coach and Chelsea player, remembers a player of great precocity, a man of almost eerie certainty around the goal, someone who in the case of the penalty area at a set piece could stand perfectly still and invite the ball to come to him almost as though he was a magnet.

Of course, always there was the urge to celebrate the richness of the days in places like the Ifield Tavern. Osgood and Hudson, another sublimely gifted young English player, were moths to this particular light.

When Hudson appeared in a friendly match against West Germany, he played with a beautiful subtlely and prompted the finely gifted midfielder Gunter Netzer to say, 'Where have the English been hiding this player?' The answer was that both he and Osgood had been doing it mostly themselves, and generally in the lively postal district of London SW.

He joined Chelsea as a pro at £10 a week under Tommy Docherty and at 17, in his first game, a Cup tie against Workington, he scored twice. He oozed maturity and touch and would become only one of nine players in English football history to score in every round of the FA Cup. He was never coy about his philosophy. It was to enjoy life as thoroughly as he did playing football, but ultimately playing the game had to be done on his terms. They were no more to the liking of Sir Alf Ramsey, England's manager, than the disciplinarian Sexton.

But then who could deny the level of his talent? Although Osgood would play only four times for his country - an absurdity when you consider the great mounds of caps granted to so many mediocre performers in today's walk-on, walk-off world of Sven Goran Eriksson and the international friendly - Ramsey did take him to the World Cup of 1970 in Mexico because he knew that here was a talent that might just explode in any circumstances.

Osgood, however, scarcely cultivated the affection of a manager whose idea of a wild night was to lead a delegation to the latest John Wayne western.

Football was football for Peter Osgood, something to play as best you could when you did it - which in his case was with formidable accomplishment - but not something to overwhelm all other aspects of a young man's life. In Mexico he gave, in terms of his international future, a maybe fatal insight into his particular priorities. When he went on to the field as a substitute his senior team-mate Alan Mullery asked him where the manager had told him to play. The 23-year-old snapped back that of more importance was the fact that he was being paid to wear a certain brand of boots.

When his playing days were over, Osgood recalled the peak of his career when Chelsea briefly threatened to challenge the might of such forces as Liverpool and Leeds and Manchester United. He said: "We beat Leeds in the Cup and went into Europe and lifted the Cup-winners' Cup after some fantastic battles against some of the top teams and characters of the era. We played the game hard and enjoyed the fruits of our labours to the full. It was a wonderful time."

Some sterner souls will say it could have been better, and if Osgood and his pals had been more rigorous in their professional standards that is no doubt true. But then suddenly, as it was a few months ago in the case of George Best, that became a matter of some irrelevance. This was especially so when the young Ossie ran through virtually an entire team and you knew you would never forget a single majestic stride of it.

From Swinging Sixties to Sainthood: The Osgood years

1947 Born Windsor, 24 February.

1964 Makes debut for Chelsea on 16 December, scoring twice against Workington Town in the fifth round of the League Cup. Goes on to play 380 games for the club, scoring 150 goals.

1970 25 Feb Makes debut for England in 3-1 win over Belgium in Brussels but wins only three more caps.

29 April After scoring in every round of the FA Cup, Osgood and Chelsea beat Leeds in the final replay at Old Trafford.

June Travels to 1970 World Cup and comes off the bench twice, against Czechoslovakia and Romania.

1971 Part of the Chelsea team who beat Real Madrid in the Cup-Winners' Cup final replay.

1972 Scores in the League Cup final but Chelsea lose 2-1 to Stoke.

1974 Joins Southampton.

1976 Wins FA Cup again as Second Division Southampton stun Manchester United with 1-0 win.

1978 After a short spell in the North American Soccer League with the Philadelphia Fury, returns to Chelsea for a season.